There is an amazingly varied cast of fully fleshed-out characters, imaginative storytelling combined with the inclusion of songs, literary quotes at the beginning of chapters and wonderful illustrations, which all serve to turn this book into something truly magical. I was hooked from the moment the ‘monster’ appeared in fourteen year old Jack’s bedroom and kidnapped him away from his tragic beginnings as an orphaned foster kid living with a real monster of an alcoholic foster mother:
“He had entered a state of fixed fascination with his kidnapper. The thing had come out of a nightmare, chucked him out the window like a bag of garbage, changed into a lizard (and back again before his very eyes), protected him from a fall that should have killed him, and come out of it all without a scratch. The monster, Jack thought, was miraculous.”
The amazing level of descriptive detail transports the reader into their own imagination with ease and every scene is so easy to visualize. The magical world of Keymark, which Jack is taken to via a portal, is full of everything a young reader of fantasy could ask for: pirates; a dragon; pixies; a traitorous villain with an army of venomous creatures; a beautiful heroine and oodles of swashbuckling bravery and derring-do. Aimed at a middle grade/young adult audience, there is also wholesome advice given from time to time, such as from Jack’s father:
“Do it with your whole heart, his calm voice said. Sometimes you’ll succeed and sometimes you’ll fail. But never let anyone say you didn’t give it your best.”
There is also heroic advice from one of the Border Knights, Abraham Qin:
“If you die today, then die well.”
What I found really ingenious was that the main character started off in Chicago, in our own world having voraciously devoured a whole host of encyclopedias and watched a surgeon perform a large number of surgeries. Thanks to his amazing eidetic memory, this fourteen year old boy is an expert on many scientific principles and even able to perform surgery from memory. When he enters the fabulous world of Keymark he has the power of science at his fingertips which is able to cause awe amongst the people he meets who are only accustomed to ‘majik’. Jack is able to draw upon his encyclopedic knowledge to teach a blue gecko American Sign Language in order to communicate with him, to use Galileo’s theories about gravity and the French invention of the parachute made from silk in order to aid his escape from a relentless demon that is hunting him.
His ability to remember the chemical formula for gunpowder allows him to help fight off a whole army of monstrous creatures.
My favourite character among the unlikely companions drawn to Jack’s side during his adventure was the roguish pirate, Rooker Flynn, who begins to respect Jack the more he gets to know him, rather than dismissing him as a young ‘boychick’. Rooker is very down to Earth and quite deliciously disgusting at times:
“Rooker put up a pot of coffee, took off his boots, and went to work on his calloused feet, shredding the dead skin off with a cheese grater. “Ahh,” he sighed happily. “Ya want this when I’m done?” “No. Disgusting. Thanks.” “
We see the power of teamwork come into play as the adventure continues. The main premise of the novel is one of good versus evil with the noble Paladine Knight, Valerian Tsai out to defeat the evil Necrórceror. Jack and his companions each has a skill necessary to make their plan work - alone none of them would have succeeded. This is a great positive message for the younger readers of this book.
I really liked the idea of the dog, Shadow, the embodiment of Jack’s Fear who begins as a puppy and gradually grows larger until almost a wolf as Jack becomes more and more fearful. Despite his fear accompanying him everywhere, Jack never gives up. His courage and determination are relentless and he also continues to have Hope:
“Hope is a dangerous thing. It can keep a man going when all seems lost, can keep him standing, keep him fighting. But when nothing is left but despair, nothing but blackness and panic and the promise of death, the tiniest sliver of hope—the narrowest thread—can seem as solid as a steel cable. That thread bears the illusion of stability, of substance, of strength, but it is only a fool’s fantasy. Hope is delicate. Hope is fragile. And a man can grip it too tightly.“
This action-packed novel is a relentless, rollicking and rambunctious romp and a roller-coaster thrill ride. It is very cinematic and I can easily imagine it becoming a blockbuster summer vacation movie one day. I cannot recommend it more highly!